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On Thursday night, the Joint Budget Committee made its final cut to balance the 2020-21 budget by turning to K-12 education, and it was the biggest of all: as much as $724 million, although that figure could be reduced down to $577 million in the coming days.

It means the debt to K-12 education — one that lawmakers and governors had pared down from a high of $1.15 billion a decade ago — could be back to where it was. At the $577 million mark, the Budget Stabilization Factor, the term for that debt, could be at $1.149 billion, or just about $1 million less than the peak.

While JBC staff analyst Craig Harper warned last week the JBC could no longer protect K-12 education, the cut was still a bitter pill for the education community to swallow. 

“Students who will have more academic and mental health needs when they return to school cannot be expected to grow and thrive under the public education cuts proposed by the Joint Budget Committee," said Amie Baca-Oehlert, head of the Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "It’s unfathomable that Colorado could withhold $1.15 billion in a single school year — the largest Budget Stabilization Factor ever — from students who are experiencing trauma from a pandemic and from an education system that has already suffered from more than $8 billion in cuts over the last decade."

Baca-Oehlert pointed out that money from the CARES Act that went to education isn't a solution either. “Legislators know our school districts cannot count on the one-time $500 million in federal funds for their day-to-day operating expenses," she said.

She advocated for the General Assembly, when they return next week, to pass an emergency tax provision in TABOR that would "provide immediate school revenue and tax relief for 95% of Coloradans." She also said the legislature should make those cuts in other departments — which ones, she didn't say — so that students and educators aren't carrying the burden for the state's budget shortfall. 

But the chances of such a measure, which requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber, are slim. In the 35-member Senate, it would take 24 voting in favor, which would require at least five Republican senators to support it, assuming all 19 Democratic senators voted for it. In the 65-member House, it would require 44 votes, or at least three Republican members, along with the chamber's 41 Democrats. 

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling told Colorado Politics last week that it was unlikely such a measure would get five Republican votes in the Senate. 

The cut will show up as a recommended amount that the state will pay for K-12 education and as contained in the School Finance Act. That measure will be introduced in the coming weeks from the chairs of the House and Senate education committees. 

The JBC, in the past three weeks, has cut or made cash transfers of $3.3 billion to get the state budget out of the hole. In addition to the cuts to K-12, they also cut $493 million, or 58%, of the general fund appropriations to higher education.

K-12 takes 40% of the state's general fund. Higher ed, which lacks the protections of Amendment 23, takes about 8%. Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000, requires the state to increase K-12 funding by the rate of inflation every year.

Baca-Oehlert said a recent poll, conducted by Keating Research, showed Coloradans preferred a tax increase (68%) over cutting public school funding. That tax increase, as proposed by the left-leaning Colorado Fiscal Institute and Fair Tax Colorado, calls for a restructuring of the tax rates so that those who earn about $250,000 would pay higher income taxes. That's contained in ballot measure No. 271, which has been approved for petition circulation.

The cut is also a concern for rural schools, but in a different way. Michelle Murphy of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance said that if the decision is made to add the $577 million to the Budget Stabilization Factor, that will hit rural schools much harder than urban ones.

Small rural districts, defined as 1,000 students or less, "are not in any position to absorb any cuts," Murphy told Colorado Politics on Friday.

They're also struggling to figure out how to put to use the CARES dollars doled out earlier this week by Gov. Jared Polis to the K-12 system. That money, $510 million, is restricted to COVID-19 expenses and has to be spent by December 30, 2020. "It's significant money," Murphy said, but the problem is what happens when those stimulus dollars dry up.

The alliance is part of a coalition of rural supporters that has asked the Joint Budget Committee, legislative leaders and Gov. Jared Polis for a rural stimulus package, estimated at $70 million. The package would send "critical funding to rural schools, hospitals/clinics, businesses and agriculture. Each of these critical sectors were struggling to remain competitive prior to the recession and simply cannot withstand the realities posed by the current fiscal crisis without additional support," the letter said.

Rural schools rely on state grant programs to fund school counselors, nurses, bullying prevention, teacher recruitment and other student support programs, the coalition said in the letter. The JBC cut millions from those grant programs in order to balance the 2020-21 budget: $1 million from bullying prevention and $3 million from teacher recruitment. 

The coalition, which includes Action 22, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Club 20, Colorado Rural Electric Association, the Colorado BOCES Association, the Colorado Rural Health Association and Colorado Farm Bureau, also said the pandemic has exposed equity issues created by a lack of high-speed Internet broadband access, an ongoing concern for years. They called on the General Assembly and governor to address this issue "once and for all."  They also asked for regulatory relief, pointing out that regulations designed to address urban school districts also apply to them and don't always fit. 

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